Science Fair Project Encyclopedia
Mary Wollstonecraft Shelley née Godwin (August 30, 1797–February 1, 1851) was an English writer who is, perhaps, equally-famously remembered as the wife of Romantic poet Percy Bysshe Shelley and as the author of Frankenstein, or The Modern Prometheus.
Mary Shelley was born on August 30, 1797 in London, England, the only daughter of famed feminist, educator and writer Mary Wollstonecraft and the equally famous liberal philosopher, anarchic journalist and atheist dissenter, William Godwin. Her mother died at her birth and her father, left to care for Mary and her older half-sister Fanny Imlay, quickly married again. Under his tutelage, Mary received an excellent education unusual for girls at the time.
She met Percy Bysshe Shelley, a political radical and free-thinker like her father, when Percy and his first wife Harriet visited Godwin's home and bookshop in London. Percy, unhappy in his marriage, began to visit Godwin more frequently (and alone). In the summer of 1814 he and Mary (then only 16) fell in love. They eloped to France on 27 July, with Mary's stepsister, Jane Clairmont, in tow. This was the poet's second elopement, as he had also eloped with Harriet three years before. Upon their return several weeks later, the young couple were dismayed to find that Godwin, whose views on free love apparently did not apply to his daughter, refused to see them.
Mary consoled herself with her studies and with Percy, who would always be, despite disillusionment and tragedy, the love of her life. Percy, too, was more than satisfied with his new partner in these first years. He exulted that Mary was "one who can feel poetry and understand philosophy" - although she, like Harriet before her, refused his attempts to share her with his friend Thomas Hogg . Mary thus learned that Percy's loyalty to Godwin's free love ideals would always conflict with his deep desire for "true love" as expressed in so much of his poetry.
Mary and Percy shared a love of languages and literature, and they enjoyed reading and discussing books together, such as the classics that Percy took to reading after they returned to London towards the end of the year. During this time Percy Shelley wrote "Alastor" and "The Spirit of Solitude ", in which he counsels against the loss of "sweet human love" in exchange for the activism that he himself was to promote and indulge in for much of his life.
During May of 1816, the couple, again with Jane (now Claire) Clairmont, traveled to Lake Geneva to summer near the famous and scandalous poet Lord Byron, whose recent affair with Claire had left her both pregnant and somewhat obsessed with him. In terms of English literature, it was a to be a halcyon summer. Percy began work on "Hymn To Intellectual Beauty" and "Mont Blanc". Mary, in the meantime, was inspired to write an enduring masterpiece of her own.
One evening, the group of young writers and intellectuals decided to have a ghost-telling contest. Another guest, Dr John Polidori, came up with The Vampyre, later to become a strong influence on Bram Stoker's Dracula. Other guests wove tales of equal horror, but Mary found herself unable to invent one. That night, however, she dreamed the story she had wanted to tell. She set herself to put it on paper, and in time her story would be published as Frankenstein and become more successful than any of the other writings produced that summer.
Mary had incorporated a number of different sources into her work, not the least of which was the Promethean myth from Ovid. The influence of John Milton's Paradise Lost, the book the 'monster' finds in the cabin, is also clearly evident within the novel. Also, both Shelleys had read William Beckford's Vathek (a Gothic novel that has been likened to an Arabesque). Can one miss the darkling reflection of the Beckford character's "insolent desire to "penetrate the secrets of heaven" in both "Alastor" ("I have made my bed In charnels and on coffins") and Mary's acclaimed piece ("Who shall perceive the horrors ...as I dabbled among the unhallowed damp of the grave, or tortured the living animal to animate the lifeless clay")? Indeed, many, if not most, commentators take this "desire" to be a major theme of Frankenstein.
Mary and Percy were both ethical vegetarians and strong advocates for animals. One can see references to vegetarianism in her writing. For example, in her novel Frankenstein, the 'monster' was a vegetarian.
Returning to England in September of 1816, Mary and Percy were stunned by two family suicides in quick succession. In November, Mary's older half-sister, Fanny Imlay, left the Godwin home and took her own life at a distant inn. Only weeks later, Percy's first wife drowned herself in London's Hyde Park. Discarded and pregnant, she had not welcomed Percy's invitation to join Mary and himself in their new household.
Shortly after Harriet's death, Percy and Mary were married, now with Godwin's blessing. Their attempts to gain custody of Percy's two children by Harriet failed, but their writing careers enjoyed more success when, in the spring of 1817, Mary finished Frankenstein.
Over the following years, Mary's household grew to include her own children by Percy as well as occasional friends and Claire's daughter by Byron. Shelley moved his menage from place to place first in England and then in Italy. Mary suffered the death of her young son Will in Rome, after which her infant daughter died too as Percy moved the household yet again. By now Mary had resigned herself to her husband's self-centered restlessness and his romantic enthusiasms for other women. The birth of her only surviving child, Percy Florence Shelley, consoled her somewhat for her losses.
Eventually the group settled in Lerici, a town close to La Spezia in Italy, but it was an ill-fated choice. It was here that Claire learned of her daughter's death at the Italian convent to which Byron had sent her, and it was here that Mary almost died of a miscarriage. And it was from here, in July 1822, that Percy sailed away up the coast to Livorno to plan the founding of a journal with a group of friends. Caught in a storm on his return, he drowned at sea on July 8, 1822, along with his friend Edward Williams and a young boat attendant. Percy left his last poem, a shadowy work called "The Triumph Of Life", unfinished.
Mary was tireless in promoting her late husband's work, including editing and annotating unpublished material. Despite their troubled later life together, she revered her late husband's memory and helped build his reputation as one of the major poets of the English Romantic period. But she also found occasions to write a few more novels, including Valperga, The Fortunes of Perkin Warbeck and Falkner. Critics say these works do not begin to approach the power and fame of Frankenstein; The Last Man, a pioneering science fiction novel of the human apocalypse in the distant future, is, however, sometimes considered her best work.
Three films have depicted Mary Shelley and the genesis of the Frankenstein story in 1816: Gothic directed by Ken Russell (1986), Haunted Summer directed by Ivan Passer (1988) and Remando al viento (English title: Rowing with the Wind) directed by Gonzalo Suárez (1988).
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